Dazzling portraits embody life itself

Famous painter from Moscow, People’s Artist of USSR Alexander Shilov, presents exhibition of his works in Minsk
By Victor Mikhailov

The exposition of 43 works is presented within the Cultural Capitals of the Commonwealth programme. President Lukashenko congratulated Mr. Shilov on the opening at the National Art Museum of Belarus: the artist’s first official visit since 2003, when he was awarded the high Belarusian award of the Frantsisk Skorina Order.

“On becoming familiar with the Belarusian nation, I’ve been astonished by people’s kindness and purity, despite having been the first to face [WW2] Fascism and having suffering the most from this,” Mr. Shilov noted, with emotion, at the opening of his exhibition.

In 2004, a record number of visitors attended Mr. Shilov’s personal exhibition in Minsk: 18,000. Also hosted by the National Art Museum, the event may be rivalled by the current show by the ‘salon’ painter of portraits. Many of the faces depicted are familiar, including beautiful female images in rich frames. The older, war veteran faces which look down from the canvases show the imprint of suffering and courage in their eyes; Shilov was a child during the Great Patriotic War, so the theme occupies a special place in his creativity. Half of the portraits brought to Minsk are those of war heroes.

Mr. Shilov’s They Were Fighting for the Homeland series has kept him busy for forty years, beginning with a portrait of Soviet Union Hero Mikhail Vodopianov, created in the 1970s, during his student days. The series comprises around forty works and continues to find new additions, as the artist tours the hero cities of the former USSR, meeting remaining veterans, to capture their image for posterity.

He has painted the legendary and unknown, including those who fought or endured the siege of Leningrad. He has also painted famous Soviet actors. Among those works on show are depictions of Vladimir Etush, who fought in the Great Patriotic War, Mikhail Kazakov, who was just six when he was evacuated from Leningrad, and secret agents Georgy Vartanyan and Alexey Batyanu.

“I’ve dedicated some of my works to people who were at war,” notes Mr. Shilov. “Their profession is irrelevant. They include popular Soviet actors Bondarchuk, Rozov and Matveev, as well as a nameless gunner who lost both legs near Pskov, but didn’t lose himself to drink, raising his son. All kinds of people gave their health and life for us, irrespective of their profession.”

Over a hundred of the painter’s works are dedicated to the Orthodox faith, with a portrait of the Metropolitan Filaret, the leader of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, among them.

However, any ordinary person may become a hero of Shilov’s pictures, met on a train for instance. At the opening of the new show, Mr. Shilov admitted his dream of creating a portrait of a Belarusian to embody the whole nation, which he’d be pleased to donate to the country.

Undoubtedly, the academician of the Russian Academy of Arts and People’s Artist of the USSR, Alexander Shilov, is known for his classical realism and tackling of acute social topics, depicting female images, representatives of the creative intelligentsia and church figures. However, according to the master, his portraits of Great Patriotic War participants occupy central place. “My dream is to paint a soldier whose face depicts the whole war,” he muses.

He also hopes to paint portraits of the presidents of Belarus and Russia. “A portrait is a historical genre used to judge whole generations; you see history in faces,” he explains.

Deeply symbolic are his portraits of older people, who endured difficult fates; they are at the heart of Mr. Shilov’s creativity. In particular, On Arisha’s Birthday (1981), They Don’t Write (1984), Soldier Mothers (1985) and Abandoned (1998) are good examples, illustrating his gratitude to and veneration for the heroes of the Great Patriotic War. His canvases are a hymn to their courage, heroism and extreme patriotism. On Victory Day. Machine Gunner P.P. Shorin is monumental in its showing of bravery and determination, alongside pain and bitterness. The combination is truly magnificent.

Portraits of secret agents also appear regularly, among them Hero of Soviet Union, Secret Agent G.A. Vartanyan (2004) and Secret Agent of the Great Patriotic War I.A. Chernov (1999). One of his central works dedicated to this topic is For Faith and Fatherland (devoted to WW2 secret agent N.V. Malysheva).

His portraits of cultural figures, also on show, are just as fascinating and expressive. Speaking of his portraits of Church figures, he notes his desire to capture the elevation of the human spirit and its philosophical contemplations. His portraits of Bishop Vasily and Prior Zinovy reveal something of their inner world and aspirations and their deeper psyche.

Mr. Shilov’s female images are alluring in their classical harmony, combining external and inner beauty, glorifying tenderness, femininity, purity and romantic spirituality: Before the Church Wedding (which depicts I. Leonardova); and Cherie, Polina Serova and Petrarch’s Sonnets (portraits of A. Dutikova).

Mr. Shilov evokes a response from human hearts, elevating our souls with his delicate and poetic yet insightful works. They are an indispensable part of spiritual life, not only in Russia but across the wider world. On visiting the Moscow State Picture Gallery of People’s Artist of the USSR A. Shilov, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko wrote in the guestbook: ‘Only those truly aware of life can create such fascinating works. The eyes of your characters are astonishing! This is the greatest realism! Thank you.’
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